Coogs May Be Getting Their Act Together As Playoffs Loom

It has been painful to watch the Houston Cougars play basketball this season, especially these past two months. There have been numerous games where the team has shot under 30 percent from the floor, and while looking even worse from the free-throw line and behind the three-point line. There has been stupid foul after stupid foul. Bad pass after bad pass.

So last night's game pitting the 14-13 (6-7) Cougars against the 21-7 (10-3) Memphis Tigers should not have even been a contest.

But somebody forgot to tell the Cougars that, and they played the best first half they've played this season, by far.

They shot 50 percent from the field, forced eight Memphis turnovers, dominated the boards, and just plain confused and outhustled the superior Tigers as they stormed to a 43-28 lead behind 16 points from Aubrey Coleman (making several "how the hell did he do that" shots) and 11 points from Maurice McNeil.

It truly was something better, something beautiful, something true.

Then the second half started. And anybody who has seen the Cougars play this season knows that the team in the second half has often appeared to be looking for a reason to lose. That didn't happen tonight as the team again shot 50 percent floor and stayed even with Memphis on the boards.

Aubrey Coleman poured in 18 second half points and Kendrick Washington bulled his way to 10 more (for a total of 16) as the Cougars pulled off the 92-75 win playing without a doubt their best game of the season.

"It felt good," guard Kelvin Lewis said. "In practice, we've been going at it, and we've been trying to have more fun....the coaches told us to just go out and have fun."

And the team did appear to be having fun as they ran an obviously frazzled Memphis up and down the court -- the Memphis bench was called for a technical foul at one point in the second half, and Memphis head coach Josh Pastner looked to be having a rather heated conversation with some courtside Cougar fans sitting across from him.

The key to this game for the Cougars was once again the play of Washington, who so dominated the play inside that Memphis had to play down on him, leaving Coleman and Lewis to roam the perimeter and take open shots.

"He was a beast out there today...." point guard Desmond Lewis said of Washington. "He's bigger than everybody. All he had to was use his post moves."

He used his post moves to grab nine rebounds to go with his 16 points. And his physical nature kept the court free for the smaller guys to roam with impunity.

Which is something that Coleman did, shooting from outside and inside, getting dunks, lay-ups, three-pointers, and midrange jumpers.

Perhaps the more amazing thing about the game, besides the final score, was just how banged up the Cougars were coming into the game. Back-up point guard Zamal Nixon was diagnosed with mono on Monday and was unavailable. McNeil had a broken nose, and coach Tom Penders wasn't sure of his availability, and Coleman's suffering from a thigh contusion which forces him to keep moving and won't allow him to sit for long periods of time -- Penders wasn't sure of his availability until earlier yesterday.

Memphis made several attempts to get back into the game, but could never get closer than 14 points in the second half. The proverbial straw that broke the camel's back appeared to come with about 8:27 left in the game when Coleman intercepted a pass and went the length of a court, getting a lay-up to put the Cougars up 72-51, and then, seconds later, saw Kelvin Lewis bury a three-pointer to make it 75-53.

It's too late for the team this regular season. But they're aiming for the C-USA tournament and the chance to do a little damage. They've showed that they can defeat the best teams in the conference when they play their best basketball. The key being, of course, that they've got to play their best basketball the rest of the season.

The game truly was something better and something beautiful to behold for the Cougar fans. And if they've been looking for a reason to cheer on the team, then those fans might have found it tonight. But it's only one game for a team that has appeared to turn the corner several times this season. There's no telling which Cougar team will appear on Saturday in SMU, but at least the fans know that, somewhere, there is a good team inside the Cougars.

SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:Before the game, the university announced that freshman wide receiver A.J. Dugat and sophomore offensive lineman Ari Tatum were dismissed from the football team for a violation of team policy. I wasn't able to get anything from the UH officials who were at the basketball game -- several of them appeared to have been taken by surprise by the news -- so I haven't been able to find out what happened. Dugat was the team's prize recruit last season; however, Sumlin hasn't appeared to be the type to suffer fools kindly, so I doubt that this was just a minor violation.

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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal